In Memoriam
Wim van der Weiden 1940-2023

Interview with Wim van der Weiden

EMA continues interviewing experts in their field. For our current issue we have been speaking to Wim van der Weiden, Board member and past Chairman of EMA about his career, experiences, role in EMA, the awards and advice to colleagues.
Wim van der Weiden presenting book

Tell us something about your backstory, your career path after being a historian.

Starting as a teacher in history for seven years, I realized – though doing it with pleasure – that I did not want to continue it until my retirement.

A vacancy of Head of the Department of History at the Museum for Education – nowadays Museon – in The Hague got my attention. I got the job! It meant the start of a career in and around the world of museums from 1970 up to 2010. I had the opportunity to combine many activities:

Building three new institutions. Museon and Omniversum (the first Space Theatre in Europe) in The Hague and Naturalis (the National Museum of Natural History) in Leiden.

Preparing the setup of a Dutch National Museum of History. The plan was accepted by Parliament, but not realized because of the financial crisis.

Being in succession or partly simultaneously member of the Board of the Dutch Museums Association, I was one of the founders of the Dutch Museum Pass, chairman of ICOM The Netherlands, member of the Executive Council of ICOM, member of the European Museum of the Year Award and for eight years its Chairman. And last but not least, I was Founder of the European Museum Academy (EMA) – together with Massimo Negri – and its first chairman. Nowadays, I am a member of the Board of EMA.

Combining these activities with memberships of several national and international boards of museums, lecturing on many occasions and acting as expert in countless workshops and seminars inside and outside The Netherlands. And something completely different: being one of the actors in the process of privatization of the Dutch National Museums.

“Social responsibility, inclusion and sustainability belong to the core business of a museum nowadays.”

Which experiences challenged you most?

Too many to recall. So I will restrict it to two completely different angles which have played the most important role in my professional life and for which I have been fighting.

What is the best way to convey scientific knowledge to a wide audience? Most misunderstandings and mistakes are basically caused by a lack of knowledge, of people having an opinion but not being aware of what is real evidence of the scientific status quo. My efforts in this respect have been rewarded with the Eureka Prize presented by NOW (Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek – Dutch Research Council.).

Worldwide, 10% of all museums are art museums. But they get 90% attention and promotion of the media: even small, not important exhibitions for example get a detailed description in newspapers or are shown in TV-programmes. In matters of design, education, digital inventions and so-called “Public Quality” in general, non-art museums are very often the precursors. Whereas art museums are the “backward children” of the museum scene, as Kenneth Hudson stated many times. This has not changed much, unfortunately. Excellent programmes in history, industrial, science and literature – and many others – museums are too often almost completely neglected by the media. I have considered it to be one of my duties to fight for more appreciation of the creative and innovative activities of these kinds of museums by the media.

” … it can be very inspiring to see what is done in a natural history museum, though you are a staff member in an art museum. So, do not focus on museums similar to your own. Widen your scope!”

How did you come across EMA, and why do cultural areas need these kinds of organizations?

In 1989 Kenneth Hudson, the founder and director of the European Museum of the Year Award (EMYA) invited me to join its Jury. For 20 years I was a judge with great pleasure and satisfaction. The main goal of EMYA (later on called European Museum Forum – EMF -) was clear: selecting the best museum in Europe, year after year since 1977. EMF still does this admirably and with great success.

But EMF is not an academy, not an institution of the higher learning and research. It is not an institution where innovations are deeply discussed and widely validated – innovations concerning the museological philosophy, the museographical language and practice as well as the role of museums in contemporary society.

That was what the founding fathers, Massimo Negri and I had in mind in 2009 when EMA was founded. They were right, apparently: 13 years later EMA has proved to be an indispensable organization in the European museum scene. The 38,000 museums of Europe deserve, need an academy, an institution that provides international training programmes, seminars, professional meetings, scientific publications and also awards recognizing outstanding results of museums, researchers, producers of multimedia a.s.o. on behalf of the cultural heritage.

What is the role of competitions and awards for museums?

Museums can benefit from award competitions in many ways. Participating in a competition might be as important for a museum as winning an award. Participating means first of all that a museum has self-confidence in what it has achieved. It proudly shows what the museum team has reached and produced.

Secondly, by being accepted and nominated a museum gets exposure and recognition, not only locally, regionally and nationally, but on a broad European level.

Taking part in one of the award competitions that EMA offers, also means entrance to a platform of museum professionals of different nationalities and cultural backgrounds. The exchange of ideas and experiences is extremely valuable and fruitful for the development of the professionalism and so the activities of a museum.

And lastly, the financial backers of the museum – public authorities, sponsors, funds, private donors – will consider the nomination and for sure the award-winning is confirmation that their money is well spent. And maybe they are more inclined to consider more investment (as often is the case!)

Do you have any recommendations to colleagues?

Pay attention to what is going on in all kind of museums, not only the one where you are employed. For instance, it can be very inspiring to see what is done in a natural history museum, though you are a staff member in an art museum. So, do not focus on museums similar to your own. Widen your scope!

Keep in mind that a museum is created for visitors, not for its employees, your colleagues. The appreciation of a museum depends on its ‘Public Quality’. Try to develop a variety of activities for people of all kinds of walk. Do not just focus on the ‘Usual suspects’ at both ends of the spectrum: the ‘well-educated and well-to-do senior citizens’ on one side and the ‘Happy kids experience’ on the other side.

Social responsibility, inclusion and sustainability belong to the core business of a museum nowadays.

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